She was responding to a poem a student had written about his suicide attempt. The room fell silent. Everyone else in the room was Black but her. "I mean, I didn't think they had serious problems," she added.
Sitting there in the classroom, I thought that had to be the most ignorant comment I had ever heard in my life. Now that slavery was abolished, the Civil Rights movement over and some African-Americans upwardly mobile, everything was alright? Blacks did not have any more problems? Wrong!
I found my teacher's statement absolutely offensive. But later, realized I had never thought about suicide among African-American teenagers either. Even though I had considered suicide myself, I didn't think that other Black kids did.
I Thought Suicide Was a White Thing
Like my teacher, I guess I thought suicide was more of a problem with White teens. Teen suicides talked about in the media were always White. If Blacks of any age were committing suicide, I had never heard about it in the news or on TV. Suicide never came up in a conversation with my friends, and my parents never talked about it.
My teacher's ignorance as well as my own led me to do further research on Blacks and suicide. I now know suicide is a real problem in the Black community and that I'm not the only Black teen who has ever thought about it.
My teacher and I weren't totally wrong to see suicide as a problem for White teens more than for Black teens. Until recently, White teens committed suicide at a much higher rate than Black teens, according to reports. But over the last 20 years, the rate of Black teen suicide has increased dramatically.
Paying More Attention to Suicide
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 1980, the suicide rate for Whites aged 10-19 was 157% greater than that of Blacks. However, by 1995 there was only a 42% difference. Although Whites are still more likely to commit suicide than blacks, the suicide rate for all African-Americans doubled between 1980 and 1996.
These statistics startled me. I wondered why there was such a dramatic increase in Black suicides. Dr. Juliet Glinski, of the Montefiore Medical Center, suggests that medical officials may be identifying suicide as a cause of death more frequently because education about suicide is more a part of their training than it used to be.
"Is there an increase among Black teenagers or in fact are we paying more attention to the problem?" said Alan Ross, executive director of the Samaritans of New York, a suicide prevention organization. "When you pay more attention to a problem, you become more aware of the number of people suffering from it," he says.
Black Teens Get Depressed, Too
It's also possible that there are simply more Black teens committing suicide than in the past. But what could be making more Black people end their lives? For some, the same reasons as White people, such as depression, social isolation and hopelessness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the most common reasons given for attempted suicides by teen suicide survivors were a conflict with a boyfriend or girlfriend, an argument with parents and school problems. And gay teens of all backgrounds have a much higher rate of suicide because they often feel conflicted about or ashamed of their sexuality.
"Certainly the warning signs of suicide and the risk factors that touch all teenagers would be there for Black teenagers," said Ross.
When it comes to the motivations to commit suicide, Ross said, "there is no difference between us." Just like White teens, Black teens have had exposure to conflicts and sexual identity issues.
Moving Into the Middle Class
Is there anything that might account for the dramatic increase in suicides among African-Americans? Donna H. Barnes, one of the founders of the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide, notes that depression, which often goes undiagnosed, is on the increase among African-Americans.
This might be because, says Barnes, "Blacks are being taken away from the traditional Black community and moving into White communities. Blacks feel isolated."
Barnes mentions that since the Civil Rights movement produced advances in law and equality, there are more opportunities available to Blacks than there used to be. Because of this, though, when they fail they may begin to blame themselves instead of the system. This can lead to depression and suicide.